India’s governance paradigm has often functioned in a somewhat paradoxical manner on the ground. On one hand, the State is heavily present in regulating everyday life, but on the other, the State is often absent, leaving citizens to their own devices for survival.
The Covid-19 pandemic brought both these features to the forefront in 2020 — marking both the absolute centrality of the State, as well as its staggering absence. And it was in between these two extremes that citizens had to find a way to navigate the most devastating pandemic in a century.
First, the presence of the State.
If there was any doubt about how government and politics affects your life, 2020 should dispel all doubts. And this is not necessarily a negative feature, for those governments which stepped back from fulfilling their responsibilities at a time of a grave health and economic emergency saw adverse results. The United States is a primary example of this grave irresponsibility.
In India, it was the State that decided that the country would be locked down to curb the spread of the pandemic; it decided international and domestic travel would be prohibited; it decided which organisations and units, as “essential services” could continue working and which would shut down; it decided how educational institutions would function and when examinations for millions of students from schools to colleges would be held; it determined when mobility would be allowed and when it would be constrained.
But it was not just the manner of how one lived that was dictated by decisions of the political leadership and the bureaucracy. It was the manner in which one coped with the health and economic emergency. The State decided what would be the protocol for testing citizens for Covid-19, who would be prioritised in terms of treatment, what would be the manner of differential treatment, who got admission to hospitals and who had to wait. It ramped up health infrastructure (critics have pointed out this was delayed and India should not have had such a deficit of hospital beds, personal protective equipment, ventilators in the first place) and it is now close to determining which vaccines would get approval and which citizens will access vaccines first. It is the State which decided the nature and sequence of economic relief, providing free ration and cash assistance to those it identified as vulnerable, credit to sectors which it believed needed it most, and framing rules and regulations about the kind of economic activity that would be permitted.
And therefore, 2020 was the year when it became clear that the governance structure in India was integral to everyday life in ways that citizens had perhaps never experienced before. Governments in India are extraordinarily powerful — a moment of crisis like the one presented by the pandemic allows them to exercise this power and make choices with long term implications. Within the State, it is the Centre that remains way more powerful than the states, the executive that remains way more powerful than either the legislature or the judiciary, and often, the local bureaucracy that is more powerful than the local elected institutions. In 2020, the State also displayed that its coercive power was firmly intact, based on a degree of democratic consent and voluntary cooperation of citizens — only this mix of coercion, consent and voluntarism could have helped sustain the lockdown for as long it as lasted.
But there was another side to India’s governance story of 2020 — the life of citizens was not just marked by the presence, but also the absence, of the State.
The abiding memory of India’s pandemic will actually not be the images from the hospitals or testing labs. It will not be the data-point of over 10 million people infected over the year. It will the image of citizens — millions of India’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens — walking hundreds of kilometres, on the highways, with their families, clutching their negligible belongings, surviving on a meal or two for days, to return home. It will be the story of the biggest internal migration the country has witnessed in decades, if not since the Partition. And there was only one reason for it — the fact that for these millions of citizens, it was not the sarkar, the government, but their samaj, the community, back home which inspired hope.
The government, to be fair, had a genuine dilemma — enable people to return home and risk the spread of the infection, or seek to confine people to wherever they were at the time of the onset of the lockdown. The State veered towards the latter option, but it did little to assure citizens that it would provide then the security — both emotional and financial — that required them to stay away from home at a moment of great panic. This was then not tenable and citizen pressure meant that 36 days after the lockdown, the government had to open up trains to allow migrants to return home. It would always be a blot on the record of the Indian State that this indecision, poor planning and delayed execution meant a large scale exodus of citizens in distressing circumstances from India’s cities, particularly in the west and south and urban centres such as Delhi, to the hinterland in India’s north and east.
While the State was present when it came to providing ration, free gas cylinders, income assistance, additional employment under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and ensuring the portability of the ration card (after much delay), it was absent when it came to actually putting money where it said it would. As Avani Kapur of the Centre for Policy Research has shown, in many key areas, public expenditure in India dipped in this crucial period. The fiscal stimulus was less a stimulus and more a credit guarantee scheme. The problem of low demand persisted, which in turn, had a multiplier negative effect in disrupting profitability of firms, supply chains, and livelihoods. And the government’s conservative fiscal stance — despite assurances that it would not take a hawkish position on the deficit — continued to keep the economy tied to the ability of the private sector to spend. Those in the private sector who did survive — and even flourish — did so either because the disruption made their sectors even more crucial (think digital services) or because of liquidity infusion in the markets or because of severe wage cuts. The government was able to do little to those who lost out in this process of destruction, which was not all that creative.
2020 brought to the fore both the strength and weakness of India’s governance structures. The State is powerful. The State can achieve what would seem unattainable if it puts political will, coercive instruments, resources and energy into achieving a particular aim. But this is also a State that is often unable to anticipate the hopes and fears of its citizens, plan accordingly, and provide the cushion that it needed to help Indians live through difficult times.